Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) Script

Come on in. -Nice to see you. Yeah, good seeing you.

Listen, take off your jacket and your shirt and we'll see what it looks like.

We can put it on your back or your chest, wherever you want.

Well, actually l... you know, I couldn't have that on my body because I hate to tell you but it was somewhat different.

In fact, it was quite a big difference.

You have to understand, I was just crawling along, I had one day to live.

I was on my knees and I was hallucinating.

And then, those enormous doors opened up.

Lots of horses kept galloping out and there wasn't death, there was...

Driving those horses, it was the angels.

And I had this vision. Death didn't want me. Death didn't really want me.


Men are often haunted by things that happen to them in life,

sometimes, you see these men walking the streets or driving in a car.

Their lives seem to be normal, but they are not.

When I'm driving my car I often hear the voices of my dead friends.

Sometimes, my friend Duane Martin calls me and tells me that his feet are cold.

Because of this, even on a warm sunny day, I keep my convertible top up.

I was shot down over Laos in 1966, in the early phase of the Vietnam war.

I never wanted to go to war.

I only got into this because I had one burning desire, and that was to fly.

But that there were people down there who suffered and who died only became clear to me much later...

When I was their prisoner.


This is dieter dengler.

He came to America 40 years ago, and for the last 15 years he has lived on mount tamalpais, north of San Francisco.

Yeah, this is a lot of fun.

You see, this really seems strange to most people, but to me it's very important.

It denotes freedom to be able to open or close a door.

When I was a prisoner, I couldn't open the door, and later on when I was dying those big doors in the sky would open up.

And so... most people don't realize how important it is, and the privilege that we have to be able to open or close a door.

So... anyway, that's a habit I got into and... so be it!

Well, this is the inside of my home.

But you see, when you come into my house right away there are pictures of open doors.

That's been always very important to me and... it gives me a sense of freedom.

Walk into my house, when I built this house 15 years ago I focused on having this open feeling.

This was very important to me that I am on top of the mountain, I needed to find some kind of canyon.

Well, looking out here you see a b-51 mus... uh, spitfire.

Flying was always very important to me as a child got little motors in there, don't know if they still work.

I can climb up there and see.

Yes, they do.

Anyway, again, just standing here you see that I do have an open feeling in this house. There's a...

Large stove. I really enjoy to cook.

Food is very, very, very important to me. As you see, there's a lot of food.

The refrigerator is always packed full with food.

The cupboard is full of food. In fact, as I look in there it's half empty.

Not only that, below the house I have emergency provisions that I put in there years ago, that I'm kind of hoarding down there. Well, I'm really curious myself now to see if everything is still in good shape down here.

Tear up this carpet here.

And those...

Those five gallon containers.

Yeah, everything seems to be... Still in good shape down here.

There is a 1000 pounds of rice.

There is a 1,200 pounds of flour and wheat.

There's 300 pounds of honey.

There's sugar down there. I tell you, I'll probably never need...

Any of this food, but I can sleep so much better knowing that it's down there.

Well, while I was in prison...

All we did talk about was food.

We talked about deep freezers, and... refrigerators, stacking 'em up and I decided I'm coming back home and I'm gonna build a restaurant.

A German type restaurant and I'm gonna stack it up and never be hungry again.

This is my mother.

She arrived in America after I had gained about 30 or 40 pounds.

I was in San Diego, in a hospital.

She...

Came on an airplane with... Boxes full of apples...

That she was passing around to all the passengers around her.

She turned the meal down, in the airplanes, because she thought it cost her a lot of money.

And, she was truly starved.

This is my father.

I only know my father from pictures. He was killed in the war.

I miss not having a father. It was just then later on...

When I was in vietham and my friend Duane's head was... cut off and the vietcongs were all around me, there was just shooting and yelling, and... yeah, I was just running along down this trail.

And then I came to this river fork and...

Here was my father, clear as a picture in the middle of the river standing and pointing with his arm, and just pointing and pointing...

For me, for the direction to go.

And I went behind the rocks and I worked my way up that riverbed.

I heard the vietcongs come by up the other side. They went up the other side, and then later on, about five days later, I was rescued going up this other side.

So...

That was truly a miracle.

Below me, you see my home town, wildberg.

I was born there. My childhood years were... spent right here.

Down here you see the church and a few houses. The left was my house.

It's not there anymore, the bombers came and...

And wiped out this town.

The first airplane...

The first airplanes that I ever saw in my life, they came right over here.

They were fighters. They were... They dove down onto this small town.

They mad senseless attacks on this small village just like this.

And behind me... up there. That's kind of how it looked.

I had two brothers then and we were out on the top window, and we looked out.

And we watched all this, and I clearly remember one of the airplanes...

Came diving at our house, and it was so unusual because the cockpit was open.

The pilot had black goggles that were sitting on his forehead. He was looking.

He had actually turned around! He was looking in the window.

And the machine guns were just firing, because the... the flashes...

I kept seeing them coming out.

And the left wing tip just missed the house by two or three feet as it whipped by!

It was just a fraction of a second. It was like a... vison for me!

It was like an almighty being... That came out.

It's just something else that's very difficult to describe.

But I knew from that moment on that I wanted to be a pilot. I wanted to be a flier.

From that moment on little dieter needed to fly.


I have a few medals that I received.

That's an American fighter Ace medal.

Right over here is the purple heart, air medal...

Distinguished flying cross, and the Navy cross.

Up here in the corner, this sword is called the sword of loyola.

It was blessed by the pope, it's brought over here by a bishop.

Just two in existence. J. Edgar hoover got one and I was lucky to get the other one.

What does it mean for you to be a war hero?

Oh, I'm not a hero. Only people who are dead who are heroes.

And that's not a thing I want to be, and I don't think of myself as a hero.

No, only dead people are heroes.

If I start over here...

This picture was sent to me recently by a friend.

This is the last shot of my airplane after I took... when I took off for Vietnam.

And this is how the airplane looked two hours later.

And this is dieter dengler, six months later, after his rescue.

He was down to 85 pounds.

I knew hunger as a child.

I grew up in post-war Germany.

We lived in great poverty and I remember as children going to bombed out buildings, where we tore off wallpaper.

My mother would cook the wallpaper and we would eat it...

Because there were nutrients in the glue.

As a child, dieter saw things around him that just made no earthly sense at all.

Germany had been transformed into a dreamscape of the surreal.

And then, things got better.

Dieter remembers the first sausage in a display window.

It was the first one in years, and he stopped and stared at it.

Everyone else stopped too, but nobody could afford to buy it.

In post-war Germany, there was no aviation.

And therefore, it remained dieter's dream to become a pilot.

This is a very, very, very old...

Rare clock.

From age 14, dengler apprenticed as a tool and dye maker.

He learned how to build church clocks.

Not only did I learn to be a... church clock builder, I learned to be a blacksmith.

God! What a tough apprenticeship I had! How many hours did I stand right here?

How many times did I have that hammer on my side?

I had this boss who was... an old man.

He was a blacksmith, he had hands like that. Many times...

He would come up and hit me in the face. I would be just... l would be passing out.

We worked from seven in the morning till late at night.

Including weekends. We made 50 cents a month.

It was truly horrible, but we stuck with it.

And then, later on in vietham...

That's the first time I recognized it. What it meant really to me and without this tough, tough, tough man that beat us many, many times; I could have never made it.

He finished his apprenticeship at age 18.

Thirty minutes after his final exam dieter was already en route to America, because his dream of being a pilot had never died.

This photo was taken the moment he left.

I left from right down here for America. I had 30 cents in my pocket...

I was two hours out of town, I was hungry.

I had two weeks to wait for my ship to leave and I hitchhiked...

Via Hamburg, to bremerhaven where the boat left.

I was climbing up the ladder, I got seasick right away.

In the back of the ship they were playing a German national song...

Tears were rolling down my eyes.

I stepped on the ship and got seasick. I was violently sick for 2 1/2 weeks.

But, I managed to go up in the kitchen or living room...

Not the living room, but where people were eating, and there I got sandwiches and I got oranges. And I hoarded it all in my room.

And then, early in the morning there was an announcement that the statue of Liberty was going to come in sight. I went in my room.

I took this large shirt from my grandfather, tied it with string below my knees and filled it up with sandwiches, with oranges, all this food.

And I thought, we're just going to arrive, I'll walk off the ship.

But we had to go through customs. Well, I never heard of customs.

I was this little 18 year old boy, I never was out of my hometown.

One time for one day we went to a castle somewhere. We were extremely poor.

So, anyway I went through customs.

A lot of people were lined up. This customs agent came over.

The first thing, he grabbed my shirt. Pulled my shirt up and all the sandwiches and all those oranges fell on the floor.

I got beet red because when I left my hometown people were laughing, they said:

"He's going to America. Money's gonna... He thinks money grows on the trees!"

They thought I'm gonna end up in jail, and now I knew...

They were right, I'm gonna end up in jail.

I didn't speak any english, I knew a few words. Timmy square... Times Square.

The highest house, two-story houses that I saw in Germany.

Here, I'm in New York. Manhattan.

Walking around it was just a whole new world for me.

But again, of course I was extremely hungry.

So, I lived in the streets for about ten days and I met a couple people.

And then finally, I joined the air force.

Because I really left Germany to become a pilot.

And I couldn't do it in Germany, Germany didn't have an air force.

They didn't have an airline, they had no schooling whatsoever.

We had to work to help our parents just to survive and to live.

And so, I went to the recruiter in New Jersey and he said:

"Of course! If you join the air force you're going to be a pilot."

I signed up, two hours later I was in San Antonio, Texas. They cut my hair off.

But instead of becoming a pilot they put me in the kitchen.

There were 5000 recruits there. 7000 recruits!

I peeled potatoes for 2 1/2 years.

And then finally, I was put in the motor pool.

I changed tires but I never got near an airplane.

I went to night school. I became a citizen.

And then, I left for California because I knew by then what I had to do.

I had to go to college, get a college degree to join the Navy.

And that's what I did. I bought a car, an old vw bus.

There was a big hole in the side. I parked in the parking lot.

I had my surfboard in there, my skis in there.

That's where I lived for 2 1/2 years. Worked at night, went to school.

And after that I joined the Navy. And then, I was based in Alameda.

And from there we left on the aircraft carrier for Vietnam.

But from the air, vietham didn't seem real at all.

For dengler it was like a grid on a map.

He had suddenly found himself not only a pilot, but a soldier caught up in a real war.

But even though it was all very real, everything down there seemed to be so alien and so abstract.

It all looked strange, like a distant, barbaric dream.


Also, l... I flew the skyraider...

Over Vietnam, I had just left the carrier.

I had flown 2 1/2 hours through heavy flak.

I was coming near my target.

And I clearly remember my target was disappearing right at the wing root, where the wing meets the body. And I rolled the airplane on its back and then, of course I would see the target above me and I was coming straight down and just when I was inverted there was this loud explosion off the right side, half my wing was gone. And I remember the brightness of it was just like a lightning striking.

The airplane then tumbled through the air.

I reached down and I dropped my tanks, and I thought I'll belly the airplane down in this valley.

But then, more explosions went off, off my right wing.

Boom! Boom! Boom!

The brightness is really what I remember. I decided, maybe I can...

Fly the airplane and glide it right over this Ridge.

There was a Ridge on the righthand side. There was a lot of trees, as I said.

There was a... an enormous tree in front of me and just before I hit it I kicked full right rudder. The airplane yawed to the right.

There was an impact on the left wing. It snapped this...

This, this thick tree off and of course then the left wing went back.

Then the entire tail: The rudder, hose, stabilizer...

Everything just tumbled by.

I clearly remember the canopy started cracking, the lower lefthand corner.

Just like slow motion. It was cracked and it ripped off.

Then my helmet just jerked off my head. And then the airplane started to cartwheel.

Then I must have passed out because maybe a minute later I came back.

I was laying 100 feet from the airplane. Dust was still in the... in the air.

It was very, very quiet. Of course, I crawled out real quickly and then I...

Ran towards the jungle to get away.

You know, many times people ask me if I was afraid, if there was fear when I was shot down.

There really is no time.

I had to unstrap. I had to drop my fuel tanks.

I had to find... l had to put the airplane in a small clearing.

It was extremely difficult to fly this airplane.

There was no time to have fear.

And then later on it's just like on an aircraft carrier.

3:00 in the morning, you're flying through this monsoon rain.

It's really not a rain, it's a waterfall that you're shooting through at 80 feet over the water, 200 mph trying to find the aircraft carrier.

You have only contact through your headset with the operator on the ship.

It's total darkness.

Then, finally there's this enormous bang as you hit the back of the aircraft carrier on your landing.

Then, as you pull over to the side... As I turned my engine off...

The engine would spin down. It would go:

Spin down. Then, my legs... that's the time when my legs start shaking. They would...

Shake and shake and shake, and I'm trying to hold them, I couldn't even hold them.

I would some time have to sit in cockpit for five minutes before I could crawl out.

And ironically...

Later on, just before dying, there is no more fear.

It's like a dream. It's just like floating along in a real thick medium.

I used to pinch myself, there was no more pain.

And I thought: "Is this real? Is this unreal?"

This. This is...

This is basically what death looks like to me.


Two days after I was shot down, I was captured.

I did the unforgivable, I crossed a small clearing.

I came out of the thick jungle...

I came to a small trail. I looked to the left, I looked to the right.

There was no one there. I went to run across. I was at about ten yards out of it and someone yelled: "You dude!” I turned to the right.

There's a guy standing there with a pistol, another guy was standing there with a rifle.

My hands shot in the air. I yelled in German: "Nicht schieren! Nicht schieren!"

Right away I was surrounded by six other guys.

They stripped of my clothes, I was searched.

They took everything away. They bandaged my left leg with bamboo because I hurt that in the crash.

And then we started to run. We ran and ran.

Every so often I would collapse. They would massage my leg. They would give me...

Some water. And then later in the evening with a rifle underneath a cluster of trees so the airplanes couldn't see us. Normally... They took four pegs in the ground I would have to lay on the ground. They would tie my ankles to the pegs and they would tie my hands to the pegs.

In his dreams, dengler would walk through an airport.

He was going to fly back home to the black forest.

But all the planes had been smashed to pieces.

Yet, he knew that the pieces would start to move, and to reassemble themselves again into real planes.

As a broken coffee cup in the film 'play it backwards' puts itself together and leaps back up on the table.

I was sure that my flight would be on time.

But then, the pieces of the plane didn't jump back together, as I had expected.

And I grew more and more horrified.

And I was glad when I finally woke up and found myself bitten by mosquitos.

In the mornings I'd wake up and a lot of times I couldn't even see because the mosquitos had eaten, had stung and my face was all swollen up.

Then we just walked, for days and days like that.

There were a lot of airplanes in the air. They were looking for me, my buddies.

And I need to make a signal. I need to have some kind of device to signal to them.

And luckily at one time I spotted a small survival mirror in the tobacco pouch of one of my guards.

I hung around these guards all the time, because sometimes we would walk...

Late in the evening. It was total dark. My hands were tied.

A guard would be in front of me.

My hands would be tied, they would go over his shoulder.

Here, I had the right guard in front of me and very carefully, ever so carefully, I opened his pocket and I took this box out...

Dengler succeeded in stealing the mirror, and for the first time he spent the night in a hut.

My legs and my ankles would be tied together with a rope.

The rope would go down, there would be a peg in the ground.

That's where I would be tied up. They would feed me up here.

Then when the sleeping time came I would lay down. A guard would be on my right a guard would be on my left. There would be rifles there.

And that night I woke about 11:00-12:00 in the morning because it was bitter, bitter cold. They were snoring so loud. I got up.

I knew that it was the right time. I kicked my...

Legs up two or three times really hard. The peg gave way.

I came up, I untied my legs slowly. I came forward to the edge and very carefully I let myself down to the edge.

Just when I hit the bottom, the pigs and the dogs and the chickens ran off.

There was a hell of a racket. I quickly went back up. I laid down again.

I didn't move.

They kept on snoring, nobody noticed. I tried it one more time...

And then I was free. I was in the jungle...

But I couldn't move because it was so thick. But my target was a mountain.

A coarse mountain just like that. And that's what I was heading for.

I'd seen that in the moonlight, but I didn't realize it was a coarse mountain.

There was crevices after crevice. There was very, very sharp rock.

It was very, very difficult to go up to this rock.

I finally got on top, there was no vegetation on top.

That day nothing came. They had stopped looking for me.

Not a single airplane. The only thing that really came was the sun. And it got hot.

I didn't count on that because I was for the last two weeks in the jungle.

It was cool down there, and I was already getting delirious and I was...

I saw all those... it was just terrible up there. And finally...

I decided to work my way down from this hill towards a waterhole. I had saw...

Seen a stinking waterhole at the bottom of this hill and that was my target, because I knew water was the only thing that would make me survive.

His guards knew where to find him.

The moment he started to drink the putrid water, they were all over him.

From then on, the torture began.

They would hang him upside down and put an ant nest over his face until he lost consciousness.

For several nights, they suspended him into a well shaft, in such a way that he almost died a slow death from drowning.

But he was worth more to them alive. He was their prized possession.

And all of a sudden we came out of the jungle into an open area.

A real red-dusted area, there were about 30 guards standing there.

They had formed a circle. I was dragged into the center of the circle and two north viethamese guys were standing there.

They had their caps on, the red stars on it.

They had khaki uniforms on. They started yelling and screaming...

And start kicking me and all of a sudden one of the guards came across the circle, walked towards me. He had his rifle in his hand.

The butt first. And he came towards me, he hesitated a couple of times.

He swung towards me. I moved my head.

He hit me in the shoulder, knocked me down on my back. The gun went off.

And I clearly remember looking across, another one of the guards closed his eyes, fell backwards over. He had no shirt on, he had just a loincloth on.

I saw the blood coming out just above his kidneys.

His buddy saw that, he took his gun, started shooting at this guy who shot this guy.

I'm laying on the ground. All of a sudden bullets are flying.

There's screaming and yelling. They had forgotten about me.

I thought it was the end of me. I closed my eyes. I waited for...

I waited to be shot myself.

I closed my eyes. I looked over. I saw someone wrap a loincloth around this guy's waist.

You know, it was natural for them to be really angry at me now.

I had escaped from them, they had lost face, and they really wanted to get even.

Whenever we were near the village, that's when they really became aggressive.

They had this new idea. My legs were tied up, my arms were tied up, my hands were tied up. I was tied behind a water buffalo.

They'd hit the water buffalo with a stick. He'd start taking off.

I was hoping behind it. I was trying to keep my balance but pretty soon I fell over.

A couple, two or three of the guards, the bad ones kept walking to the right and left they were kicking me in the face with the dust all the time.

They were kicking me-other guys would jump to my back. The kids were laughing.

They thought it was just a lot of fun.

Later on, they wanted me to sign something condemning the American aggression in Vietnam.

I didn't sign it. I didn't believe in it.

They came up with this idea. They stuck small, little...

Pieces of bamboo underneath my fingernails. They cut my arms.

They put pieces of bamboo, actually they stuck it in there and they left a piece of bamboo in there.

They cut here. They cut here.

They cut here.

At various different places. Then one guy had this idea, they'd put this rope around my upper arm.

Like a tourniquet, they put a piece of wood in there twisted and twisted it, until the nerves were cutting against the bone.

My hand would drop, and this hand was completely unusable for six months.

They were just always thinking of something to do to me.

It's Christmas time in my home town in Germany.

It's beautiful, all the decorations...

It's like a Christmas calendar.

But many, many years before, during the Nazi time, it was a different story.

In fact, in this town, 100% of the people voted for Hitler.

Except on person: My grandfather.

He was picked up at the house.

They hung signs around his neck saying that he was a traitor.

The parade on tinseltown.

There was a fanfare of drums and trumpets.

People spat out of the windows, water was poured on him.

And he feared for his life, he thought he was not going to live through it.

And for me, 30 years later when I was a pilot in Vietnam. I was a prisoner.

I was tortured and they wanted me to sign a piece of paper saying...

That I condemned the American action in Vietnam.

And I was strong enough not to do that.

Many times this strength came through my grandfather. I was thinking of him...

And if he could do it, so could I do it.

Oh oh. This feels a little bit too close to home.

Of course, dieter knew it was only a film, but all the old terror returned as if it were real.

I thought: "You guys behind me with your camera can only see my back,"

"but you can't know how my heart is thumping inside."

I told myself: "Okay, play along with them."

"Running like this might chase the demons away."


Almost everything that I learned in survival school back at...

In California, I couldn't use in the jungle.

I watched my guards, they taught me a lot.

They taught me how to set traps. They taught me how to make fire.

In the jungle it's quite easy to find an old piece of bamboo.

Which is right here. You split it in half...

And then you mount... half in a vertical position. You take four or five sticks and just...

To hold it into place. Then you take the other half...

And you need to cut a grove in the other one, from the top.

Cut this grove just far enough in, so it just barely comes back on the other side.

Then you take a machete...

Or anything else, and you make some scrapings of the bamboo.

As you can see, it looks like a little wool.

Now, I have prepared this a little bit already, but you take this wool...

And you put it over this crack, then you start rubbing.

Okay.

Being a prisoner, all of dengler's thoughts were focused on another escape, and on survival.

Back in the mid-sixties, American strategic thinking was turned against Russia.

So, all survival meant survival in Russia and Siberia.

A jungle war didn't factor much in their thinking.

And that's why their instructional films look somewhat funny.

You know, when it rained that hard you didn't have to collect water.

Of course, our man immediately comes across heart of palm.

The film hints, as easily as in the supermarket.

Very important is... That you have got a knife.

Of course, our man also has his whetstone on him.

And you better look hard for the enemy.

And now, the knife seems to be sharp as a razor.

You've got to put it to the test.

A leaf should slice easily in two.

Now, if the leaf doesn't cooperate, you can still chew it.

Let's suppose you are wounded.

It's always smart to have your medicine kit on you.

You apply the right ointment.

Rub it in, sleeve down, and done.

And it's a good idea to bring your radio transmitter along.

You make your position known to the planes above.

And then, you shoot a flare.

The rescue helicopter spot it, and you better scramble for a clearing.

The helicopter is already waiting.

But now, this is very odd.

What for god sake is our man signaling so frantically to the helicopter right above him?


As we were walking through the jungle, we always had fire with us.

One of our guards had this little container on wires.

It was full of charcoal. He would swing it back and forth so it wouldn't go out.

Some of the other guards would have a fan made out of bamboo.

They would cut it on top with a machete, then they would beat it flat with a rock.

They knew exactly what rind to cut, some white sap would come out.

It was really sticky, they would smear it all over the surface here.

And as we were walking along, they would just see a small or a big bug way up on a branch or a leaf. They would reach up very carefully and the wings of this bug would stick on it.

They would take it off and they would lay it on top of this charcoal.

And it was-we were walking along, they were barbecuing all the time.

In fact, one time I turned around and they had a small bird barbecuing.

When we got there in the evening, they weren't hungry.


I was shot down over Laos, and of course I was captured by the pathet Lao.

We started walking towards the east, towards Vietnam, and about 2 1/2 weeks later I was turned over to the Vietcong.

Even though later on I was kept in a pathet Lao camp, it was clear to me that the north vietnamese were running the show.

They were a different breed of people, I was frightened of them.

They were very, very honest. They were very, very precise.

When I walked with them, we would come into a village...

They would line up all the people. They would count the people.

They would write down the name of the village.

They would look at their watches, it would be 7:28.

They would know the time.

They would tie me down different at night. There was no chance that I could escape.

In fact, there is one incident that's very vivid in my mind.

Initially, when I was captured...

They took everything away from me...

Except my engagement ring. I insisted on keeping it and they let me have it.

And here, about 2 1/2 or 3 weeks later we arrived in this village.

We came to a hut, it just looked something like this.

There was a villager in the corner, he was cooking.

Next thing, he's next to me.

He gave me a plate of rice. He smiled at me, he was very friendly.

All of a sudden he grabs over, he grabs my hand.

He gets a hold of my ring and he starts pulling my ring off.

And of course I'm pulling back. And it's going back and forth, and back and forth like that. There was no way this guy's gonna get my ring.

He got up, he left. I thought it was all over.

All of a sudden, a few seconds later, he's coming back with a machete.

He raises his arm. I realized then I better let him have my ring.

The north vietnamese, they were in a corner.

They were doing something over there, they were not aware what was happening.

They got up. Got our stuff together, and off we went, we left.

I was disappointed. I was unhappy. And the longer we walked, the angrier I get.

And about 1 1/2 or 2 hours later I stopped them I showed them my finger, it was all white where the ring had been.

At first they didn't understand what I was talking about.

I made stealing gestures. They got together, they talked.

Then they turned around and started walking back towards this village.

Of course, I was happy. I was thinking I'm getting my ring back.

But I wasn't prepared for what happened next. We got in this village...

Next thing, they find this villager, they just beat the hell out of this guy.

And then, they grabbed this guy's hand. Violently they grabbed his hand.

They put it on top of the table, they put his finger there. They chopped his finger off!

I'm leaping back! The blood is squirting out! The... finger's laying on the ground.

The north viethamese bends down, he picks up this finger.

He pulls off this ring, he sticks it on my finger. I was speechless.

I caused this misery, I felt horrible.

He nodded to me, we turned around, we walked off.

I realized right then and there, you just don't fool around with the vietcongs.

It's just a movie. Don't worry about it.

And you still got your fingers and everything.


Finally, after 3 1/2 weeks I arrived at a prison camp.

I looked forward to coming to the camp. I had been beaten so much.

I lost so much blood. I had been unconscious so many times.

I wanted to share my misery with someone else.

Other pilots. I was hoping to see someone, maybe meet someone I have known before.

Maybe a doctor would be there, but it was totally different than what I expected.

First of all, I thought I was all alone in this... this camp.

High bamboo walls on the side. The huts were built out of grass and out of bamboo.

I was let in, they threw me into one of the huts.

And only three hours later they opened the door and let the other guys come out.

I couldn't believe my eyes, the first guy was carrying his intestines around in his hand.

There was six of them. There were 4 thais, 2 Americans...

Duane Martin who became my friend later on.

With a rusty nail and a rock they would knock each other's teeth in to let the puss out. They'd been there 2 1/2 years.

It was just awful. I looked at them and I realized that's exactly what I'm gonna look in six months. So, I said I'm leaving tonight.

No. I was advised not to because of the rain. We needed the water to drink.

At nights we would be handcuffed. Sometimes we would get cross-handcuffed, sometimes straight-handcuffed. Cross-handcuffed, this is a more modern handcuff, would be like that.

Left wrist would go to the right wrist of the guy on my right.

My right wrist would go to the left wrist of the guy on my left.

This way we'd be together. Everybody had dysentery.

Twenty times a night, this guy made the motion, this guy had to make the motion.

On top of it, our legs were in foot blocks, big wooden blocks they made.

Our feet would be driven through there, a pin would come inbetween.

Some sides were be longer, sometimes it would be shorter.

And this is the way they expected you to sleep.

We had no blankets it was miserable cold.

In the misery of those nights, dengler often dreamt of oceans and foreign shores.

And I dreamt that a boat appeared.

And the whole American Navy came to rescue me.

And I waved. And I shouted.

But they wouldn't listen.

They just kept on going and went somewhere else.


As far as food, they themselves were very poor. At the beginning we were given a handful of rice, then later on a... A handful of rice for all of us.

Sometimes they would catch a deer. They would cut a deer open, they would take the grass out from the inside. That's what we would get to eat.

They would keep the meat. They would take the meat and stuff it in a bamboo container.

After 4 or 5 days it would rot so bad for themselves. They would come in with a towel they would pour it out, it would be white, it was covered smack, and it would stink to high heaven. First time I tried it I vomited.

But if you didn't eat it, you just died.

We were luck, though, because we couldn't go to the bathroom.

So, once every 3 or 4 weeks they would let us out.

We would go to the bathroom right below us, it would stink to high heaven.

I mean it was awful, but there were rats down there.

And we couldn't catch the rats, but there was a snake there.

And every so often we were lucky to catch that snake.

We would look, we would lay on our bellies, we watched this snake line up on the rat.

Get a hold of the rat. We had a stick, we would get the snake, we pulled the snake up, we pulled the rat out.

We cut the rat apart and everybody got his share.

We lost, of course, a lot of weight waiting for the rain to come. But...

We had to supplement our food for the day that we left for freedom.

Well, initially... initially, February or march...

We were allowed to go to the bathroom in the morning... for about two minutes.

And... we had...

We have a couple of tubes you go in at night and you can imagine you're in a big block in the woods, and you're handcuffed like that and you got to go to the bathroom at night with a guy having diarrhea or dysentery.

So, it was a real mess, but while we walked down, we run down like hell.

There's about a 20 or 30 foot walk to the hole.

And while we did this they... They shot at us.

Black in the face, or greased their hair with a bullet, and...

So, we didn't even want to go anymore. We... we rather stayed with the tubes.

The question is: "Why were they shooting at ya?"

Just harassment. They will take a gun and they'd show it to you, they put a...

A round in it and they put it right onto your head and they...

Take the safety off and they go: Click, click, click, click.

And they'll laugh. Stuff like that. So...

I'm lucky to be here!

The camp was inside Laos, and the shortest way out would have been east to the ocean.

But there were impassable mountains and, of course, north Vietnam.

What made most sense for them was to go west.

To float down the river to the mekong, and then cross to freedom in Thailand.

Our plan to escape from this prison camp was planned right down to the last detail.

We had six months, we're waiting for the monsoon rain.

We had a little problem amongst ourselves.

Some of the prisoners didn't want to escape.

In 1966 there was really no war in Laos.

They were hoping to be released pretty soon, and also they were afraid to be shot on the way out.

This changed pretty dramatically, real quick, because the thais, who spoke the language, in this hut overheard the guards outside talking about that they would take us in the jungle, shoot us so it would look like we'd escaped because they wanted to go home anyway, because they had hardly anything else to eat.

Of course, now we all thought alied... alike.

And we had to move really, really quick. And the plan was that if I would make it out of my hut...

Into this hut over here, without being seen, the other guys would follow me.

Now, we had...

For the last 2 or 3 weeks, we had a little diagram.

We had little squares with names on it for the people and the rifles.

We would look through the cracks. We would observe them. We would listen to them.

And pretty soon we knew exactly where every rifle was, where every person was, because this was very, very important.

That they would all be in the kitchen at the same time, because our plan was that while they were in the kitchen we would encircle them.

We would capture them. Lock 'em up. Hold the camp signal the airplanes at night and be rescued right out of there.

Now, during the day there was only ohne time that we could do this.

We had about two minutes, 120 seconds to do this.

And this is when the cook over here would yell: "Chow time! Food time!"

Only then would the guards leave their rifles behind.

The next problem was to get out of the handcuffs.

It's quite simple. Nowadays everybody ought to know how to open a handcuff.

If you come a little closer with your camera I can show you how to do that.

With this small key, I'm gonna open the handcuff to show you the functions inside.

As you look in there, you see this small spring going back and forth.

You'll also see a few teeth in there that holds the handcuff in place.

Now, just with a regular paperclip...

You can open this handcuff quite simply by inserting...

One of these ends into the opening.

Apply pressure to the spring, pulling the handcuff open.

The day came. The cook yelled:

"Chow time!"

I stripped my blocks, I let myself to the floor. I was underneath my hut now.

I crawled quickly over to the logs, those heavy logs that I had to lift out. I...

Actually loosened them the day before. My heart was really pounding.

I crawled across. I came to this fence. I untied the rattan.

Slipped the bamboo up and rushed through this door and I leaped into this hut.

There were three rifles in there, two I passed away, and the other one I kept.

I ran out into the open. Nobody came out from this side except the guards running in my direction. They must have heard or seen the other guys.

This big shootout started. All of a sudden the bullets were flying.

Somehow we had miscalculated. Somebody had a rifle in there.

I had this sub-machine gun in my hand. I never shot one before.

When I pulled the trigger it practically flew out of my hand.

It raised up like that and this allowed them to close this distance real quick.

They came within 2 or 3 feet from me.

The morron, one of the guys, had a machete in his hand.

He came within 4 or 5 feet, I shot him through the hip.

It lifted him up, it threw him down to the ground.

Next thing I'm looking up, he's getting up again.

He still had the machete, he's still coming at me.

Of course this time I couldn't miss he was right 2 or 3 feet in front of me.

I couldn't believe it.

I didn't have a scratch. There was five dead guards laying on the ground.

Two of them got away. They ran a zigzag pattern and they got in the jungle.

I knew then, right then and there, they would get help...

And we had to get out of there. Where was Duane?

I saw him behind this bush over here, he had vomited.

I yelled to him: "Duane, let's get out of here! Let's get out of here!"

We took off. We ran down between this kitchen. We run...

Ran amongst those dead guys laying on the ground.

And it was very important because our shoes were tied together in a bundle, were hanging on this hut over here.

The shoes we needed in the jungle but when we got there, they were already taken.

The other guys must have taken them and run off with them.

And then, Duane and I, we had no choice but to turn around, barefoot we ran into the jungle.

Of the seven of us that escaped, I was the only one that came out alive.

The other ones disappeared in the jungle and nobody ever heard from them again.

God! How did I ever make it through this jungle, barefoot, for weeks.

I'll never know.

Dieter and Duane were struggling to make their way through the jungle.

Weak and starved, their feet badly cut by thorns.

After ten days they reached a river, somewhat like this one.

Only the river was much higher because of the monsoon rains.

We were ecstatic. We felt like dancing and we thought that this was our highway to freedom.

Exhausted as they were, they managed to build a small raft and climbed aboard.

There we were on this river, this beautiful river, drifting down between hills and mountains for a couple- hour and a half, down towards Thailand.

I thought I heard something. I said: "Duane, do you hear anything?"

But then it got quiet again, but when we came a... around the next hill, we heard it at the same time.

We both yelled: "Waterfalls!" He leaped off.

I jumped in the water. I was actually in the water, I grabbed the rifles.

I kicked as hard as I could. I was taken off. I was going then towards... this side.

Duane was already nearly over there, but I had these rifles in my arm and I couldn't really swim that fast.

And the current shot, picking up, and quicker and quicker!

And I thought I wouldn't make it and finally there was a couple of rocks sticking out.

I clung on this rock and I looked over the side and...

Our raft had tumbled and tumbled and tumbled down 300 feet.

It disintegrated on the bottom. I was speechless.

I looked at Duane, he was show-white. We had just... escaped death I mean it was truly touch and go.

We were speechless. We just sat there after I made it to shore.

Trying to decide what to do. One of the rifles, we threw away.

It was vertical going down, on both sides.

We had a very difficult time because it was full of green moss.

During the rainy season.

The ground was very muddy and on the vines we were sliding down, helping each other down.

And late in the evening we arrived on the bottom.

We were totally exhausted. We were totally disillusioned.

Then barefoot, over rocks and sticks we...

Down the river we went, looking forward towards freedom.


To this day, I often think about Duane Martin.

We shared so many hardships, hopes and despair.

And this made us grow very close.

By the end, Duane was closer to me than anyone else in my life.

Even closer than my mother and my brothers.

Behind me is the mekong. We called it "the big muddy".

Over there is Laos. I was a prisoner of war over here. Over here is Thailand.

Freedom.

We talked about this river so many times. We dreamt about this river.

This river was our target.

But we never reached it.

When I think about it now, even though it's over 30 years ago, it's just like it happened yesterday.

I remember, Duane and I, we had...

Nearly starved to death when we escaped the camp. We were barefoot in the jungle within the first mile our feet were cut to shreads.

In fact, they swelled up to big white stumps.

We had found a single sole of a tennis shoe.

And we alternated wearing it, and we would tie it to one of our foot with rattan.

And then came the monsoon.

The monsoon is something else.

I mean, you have to really be there to... To know what I'm talking about.

It's just deafening. You can scream on top of your lungs and nobody can hear you.

The water comes down like somebody turned on... a bathtub.

It goes for hours, for days. The mud!

The bamboo! All the stuff the comes down from the mountains.

In fact, Duane and I, we had to look for high grounds.

We would tie ourselves down to a stump or trees.

Not to be swept down with this mud overnight.

Of course, we would hug each other. We needed each other for warmth.

We needed each other for friendship in this misery.

And then came dawn.

I would look over there and I couldn't even recognize Duane.

Duane would be covered from top to bottom with mud and blood.

I looked the same.

We had leeches, not 20, not 50. Hundreds. It was like a belt.

It was black around there. Our legs were covered with leeches.

They were looking for the soft spots. Between our fingers, underneath the arms, and the nose and the ears. It was awful.

They're tiny, tiny creatures. Like a needle, they find ever tiny, little hole.

They attach themselves, they suck themselves full with blood, as big as this finger.

We would then take our rags off, we would take bamboo and we scraped them off, and on we went.

But then, there were a couple of times we thought we really had it made.

One time, we built a raft. We had to abandon the raft.

The raft went over the waterfall. But then, later on we made this beautiful fire.

We waved at night to the airplanes. They saw us, they circled overhead.

And we knew, we're gonna be rescued, that next morning.

We were elated. We hugged each other, we cried together.

We talked about who's going in the helicopter first. What are we gonna eat.

Who are we gonna call.

And then moning came, and we waited and waited, and nothing happened.

It was a blow. What a disappointment.

But then we had to move on because we were starving to death.

In fact, we couldn't even walk anymore. We were crawling and lay on our knees around this small little trail. And all of a sudden there was this small boy on our left.

He was carrying a water container over his shoulder.

And all of a sudden, there was all this comotion. People were running...

All over each way. There was noise.

Duane and I right away were on our knees and we put our hands together. We said:

"Hello. Sabai."

Duane then starts sitting back and started getting up.

And all of a sudden out of the corner of my eye I saw something.

I looked over there, a villager was standing there.

He had a machete in his hand, high above his head.

He just hesitated for a second and then he swung.

He swung for me, I ducked, it missed me by a few inches.

He hit Duane in the upper leg, the blade was deeply buried.

And then Duane screamed. He reached down, he grabbed his leg, screaming!

And with the next swipe...

Duane's head came off. Blood squirting out!

I start screaming. I leaped towards this villager.

He turned around, he ran. In fact, they all started running and unknownst to me, I had reached down and grabbed this rubber sole from his foot.

I turned around and ran, where thirty seconds before I was crawling along.

Duane, my friend, he was gone.

And from then on, my emotions, my progress, became mechanical.

In fact, I couldn't care less if I would live or die.

But then later on, there was this bear. This beautiful bear that was following me.

It was circling me. In fact, sometimes when it was gone, I missed it.

It was just like a dog. It was just like a pet.

Of course, I knew, this bear was there, he was waiting to eat me.

When I think about it...

This bear meant death to me.

And it is really ironic...

That the only friend I had in the end was death.


How dieter dengler has been able to cope with all this remains a mystery.

He hides behind the casusal remark that this was the fun part of his life.

Dieter took an early retirement from the armed forces and became a civilian test pilot.

He survived four more crashes, and flies to this day.

Death did not want him.

What's that, about 20 pounds? No, 30 actually. -30 pounds. Wow!

My god, he'll be surprised. How long did it take to cook that thing?

A good five hours. Five hours.

Dieter! God, my suspicions were true!

It's good to see you! Happy Thanksgiving, friend!

This is Eugene deatrick, to whom dieter dengler ultimately owes his life.

Dieter wanted to surprise him on Thanksgiving.

I wouldn't be here without you and I really appreciate what you did for me.

And that you followed it up and... Sit down, tell me all about it.

My god!

You're losing hair. Both of them.

Tell me did you have any suspicion, even a little bit?

I had a little bit.

You don't come down here for...

No one telling you what it is, but bygod it's good to see you.

All right, I haven't done that too many times, but...

What a Turkey.

Andy and I started to take off that morning.

I have said many times to people that this was a million in one shot.

If everything hadn't gone exactly right we never would have found you.

Just step by step.

We were late getting off.

Supposed to leave at eight.

Didn't get off until about noon or 1:00.

We came up and it was an armed wrecking area.

Which meant that you could bomb anything in the area if you thought it was enemy.

And I left Andy high, to stay in contact with danang.

And I went down on the deck.

And I saw this big boy river coming out of the mountain.

And I thought I'll go up that as a first shot.

And again, if it hadn't been that you were right in the bend, because as you fly straight I couldn't see down.

But just where you were there was a bend in the river.

I made that 90 degree bank and looked down and there on that rock... A split second!

And this nut sitting down there waving at me.

And I thought that was nice and flew on.

I must have gone 5 or 10 minutes and I'll never know whatever made me come back.

But something just didn't settle right, that...

I guess you, it wasn't a conscious effort, but...

Natives don't...

Hang on and wave to you. Wave to me on a fully loaded airplane.

So, I came back and when you were there a second time waving...

I really wasn't sure what it was...

The flare. The flare.

Actually, it wasn't the flare. About five days before...

You know, I had gone down to a village, and the Americans saw it and dropped flares, and it was one of those parachutes.

And I had already given up... It looked like fishing nets from where I was.

Well I'll tell ya. I pulled that sucker down and I had that thing in my little backpack and when I heard an airplane I didn't even look up. All I could do is reach back there.

That's when I pulled that white piece of material out. I was thinking: "Sos. Sos."

"How does it go, does the s go this way? Or the s go this way?"

And I ripped my pants off, trying to lay it down.

And every so often I would look up and you were way in the corner between the clouds.

I thought: "Oh god. Please don't let him leave. Please don't let him leave."

I was laying out this sos... And as I came back around the next time I asked Andy if he could see anything, and that's when he saw the parachute and said: "It looks like he has an sos." Well that...

Gave us both the clue that...

Someone was down there, and the fact that you were there after three passes...

So, we pulled off to the side and I called the crown aircraft, which is the c-121 controller in that area.

And I asked them if anyone had been shot down.

They said there was no air force, no Navy, no marine, no Laotians, no thai.

Nobody, huh?

And I said well... insisted that someone was down there, and they said "well, it couldn't be." And a long conversation went on.

But we finally got approval and they got the rescue helicopters, two of them.

And the aircraft on the coast escorted them in.

I took the lead helicopter when they got in sight.

Put him down and told him where you were, and went out.

And that's when he dropped his long range tank up the river from you.

That's the first time I realized it was for real.

Because you know, I was hallucinating all this time and when I smelled that gasoline I knew it was for real.

And... he couldn't get down very low because of the mountain.

And he dropped the penetrator cable down and I saw you climbing aboard.

And it was then that my heart began to beat, I'll tell you.

Well you know, I couldn't even pull down the zip on the penetrator.

I had it in my armpit as I was going up.

The helicopter had come in and all the trees and the bushes...

Blowing me around down there and I had a hard time catching that.

As I was going up I was just going around and around.

They were taking off because the vietcongs, they were shooting up at them.

The guys up there had the machine guns, not only on them but also on me, because they thought that I might be a Vietcong. They probably had the same idea I had.

Not recognizing dieter as an American, and fearing he might be a Vietcong on a suicide mission, a black corporal on board the helicopter threw his weight of 300 pounds upon the skeleton that was left of dieter, and wrestled him to the floor.

The previous day dieter had seen a snake swimming in the water, and had bitten it in two from hunger.

Searching for explosives, the corporal pulled out half a snake from under dieter's shirt.

It gave him such a shock that he fell halfway out of the helicopter, and had to be rescued himself.

So, as he started to pull away and I saw you going in, and the thing didn't blow up, I gave a great sigh of relief, I'll tell you that!

That scared me. I thought my career would be over if that...

And as they went away I asked 'em if they could identify you. And they said that they didn't know who it was but he claimed that he was a Navy lieutenant that had been shot down several months before.

And I'll tell you, my heart gave a sigh of relief.

Dieter wanted to be back with the fleet, back on his ship.

He had been taken to the hospital in danang.

He was safe now, but he was sure this was only a dream.

For him, this was just a mirage.


He wanted to run, and they had to tie him to his bed.

So, his friends came and snuck him out and brought him back to the carrier.

The elevator took him down to the hanger bay.

It was a drizzly day, and there had been hardly anyone on deck.

But there was something strange, something almost eerie about the fact that no one was there.

Unknownst to myself, the admiral had assembled about...

4000 people up here in the hanger bay.

They were waiting for me and I was thinking that nobody would know that I was alive that this was going to be a total surprise. So, the airplane was...

The engine was turned off. The airplane was pulled in here.

We came over here.

There was just a... load of these people. 4000 guys were waiting.

They opened... the door, there was a red carpet.

And the yelling and the screaming started.

It was such an emotional moment. I just can't really describe it.

The tears!

All my friends that I'd been through flight training with. Norman, spook...

Farcas, lizard. They all were there. Tears were rolling... hugging.

And finally, I was on the aircraft carrier, they were all my buddies.

The other pilots there, they did everything they could for me.

It was just unreal. The admiral packed his bag.

He left. He said: "Dieter, my quarters are your quarters.” I slept in his bed.

At nights I would have dreams, I would yell and scream.

My friends would tie me down, they even got afraid of me sometimes.

So, they finally figured it out and they would take me up in a cockpit.

At nights they would take me up on top of the carrier deck and they would pack me into a cockpit, put two or three pillows next to me.

That's where I felt safe. That's where I felt... truly, truly safe.

And then I would sleep in there. In fact, later on when I was on different bases, sometimes at nights I would come down and I would go to an aircraft cockpit, and I would just bed in there and I would sleep in there.

And I brought you here to show you all these airplanes.

I mean, this is a heaven for pilots. I mean, just look around.

In every directions there's just miles, and miles and miles of airplanes.

Everywhere! Here, miles and miles...

God! Look at the cockpits! These are just fantastic!

These are just really, really, truly beautiful.

And one could really feel at home here. This is just a heaven for a pilot.